Lift The Label: My Experience with Opioids

scars

Photo: Mike Thurk

This post is sponsored by the Colorado Department of Human Services, Office of Behavioral Health’s Lift The Label campaign.

Pain and I have an interesting relationship. As an athlete – and runner – I’m pretty comfortable with it. In fact, a main goal of training is to get comfortable in the uncomfortable. The only way to do this is to experience pain, to invite pain into my training, to wrestle with the physical sensation of wanting to quit, wanting to stop moving, but continuing, despite the physical cues insisting otherwise. Then, do it again.

Pain is my training tool, and I think many other athletes can relate to this well. I’m describing a hard workout, a race or an ‘off day’ in training. They are painful. These hard days are instrumental in getting stronger mentally, but also physically. Some of the best-trained athletes are those that have the highest tolerance to pain, at their peak in a training season (Endure by Alex Hutchinson). I know that’s the case for me.

IMG-20170902-WA0004

So what is my relationship to pain, besides familiar? Is it healthy? Extreme, maybe? I experience pain on a daily basis and use it as a barometer to effort level, progress and the onset of an injury. Although my relationship with pain is a bit extreme compared to most, I think it is my familiarity with pain that allowed me to avoid other potentially dangerous conditions.

After my near fatal fall in Tromso, Norway, I sustained multiple, serious injuries. I was admitted to the hospital for nearly two weeks, had a total of five surgeries with twelve broken bones, and a very lengthy recovery process. Even as someone very familiar with pain, this pain was new, more intense, and at times, unbearable.

21752818_1490323594394028_8758089502851775724_o

I remember the first nights in the hospital, being unable to sleep due to an unrelenting pain. In order to receive some comfort and relief, the nurses gave me morphine and other prescription opioids so I could relax, sleep, and my body could try to repair itself. At this point in my recovery, I needed the relief so I could start to heal, so I could rest and not focus on the unyielding sensation of pain. But, as I made the transition to home, after my last round of surgeries and new prescriptions of painkillers, when was it appropriate to stop taking them? A sensation that I referred to as useful, as a mark of progress, had now turned into a sensation linked to fear. I was now afraid to feel pain. I didn’t want to feel it. I wanted to numb it. I wanted to be able to sleep, to relax, to feel normal. If I was in pain, I couldn’t sleep, I could hardly focus. I couldn’t live that way.

But the more I read about the effects of my painkillers – opioids – on healing my bones and ligaments, the more I questioned my use of them. I was instructed by my physicians to take the painkillers, insisting they would help me as my body healed from my accident. Opioids are prescribed extremely regularly – in fact, the prescribing rate for opioids in Colorado is 59.8 opioid prescriptions per 100 people. Yet, I was unconvinced. So I stopped. I didn’t refill my prescriptions and I became re-acquainted with my body, and how it was truly feeling.

20170813_153305

My story with opioids isn’t how everyone’s story goes, unfortunately. In the U.S., 2.1 million people suffer from opioid addiction and 115 people die every day from opioid overdose. Prescription opioids are incredibly normal – they’re prescribed to everyone, regularly. Grandmothers, teachers, children, you or me – we could all receive an opioid prescription from a doctor, so they can seem harmless to take. The truth is, opioid use is not so straightforward. It’s terrifying to think it can take as little as 7 days of opioid use for a person’s brain to become dependent on them.

Some people may be able to choose not to take them, like in my circumstance; some may take them and be fine.  Others may one day find themselves a part of the 2.1 million statistic. Prescriptions are often cited as the way many people first come into contact with opioids – 80% of people who use heroin first misused opioids from a prescription, and 40% of those overdose deaths I mentioned come from prescription opioids.

In addition to my familiarity with pain and its use as a training tool, I also have a master’s in neuroscience. So, my knowledge of the brain, addiction and its response to chemicals made my skepticism of opioid use even higher. Often, opioid use has the stigma of being seen as a moral failing, something a person chooses to do. This is just not true, it’s not how the brain works. Can you stop yourself from feeling hungry or thirsty? Or from telling your heart to beat or your lungs to breathe? There are certain things your brain overrides, and this is what happens when addiction takes over. It’s no longer a choice. Scientifically, we know that opioid addiction is actually a brain disorder – an actual illness that needs medical treatment.

IMG_7507

Photo credit: Mike Thurk

In Colorado, there are 22 certified opioid treatment programs and 600 doctors, physicians assistants and nurse practitioners statewide who can prescribe buprenorphine treatment. Often, what keeps those with opioid addiction from seeking help from these resources is that same stigma. The one that equates addiction with failure or poor choices. These labels only cause more harm, so, if you’re looking to make a difference in the opioid crisis, I’d encourage you to remember this –  beneath the label of opioid addiction is a person just like you or me, whose use of opioids may have started innocently, but then found themselves wrestling with a very real medical struggle.

If you or someone you love is suffering from opioid addiction, please reach out! You can also visit LiftTheLabel.org for more information, or if you feel your or another’s life is in immediate danger, call the Crisis Hotline at 1-844-493-8255.

Advertisements

Resting Into Greatness

 

Resting is recovery. Resting IS recovery. Resting is . . . well . . . it’s hard. I’m a person of routine, and running is part of it. Running, moving, getting outside is part of me. It makes me better. I can focus; I’m more patient, and more productive. When I rest I find myself restless, not sure what to do with my pent up energy.

img_1807

It’s a distinct feeling from tapering. For a taper, I’m relieved for some rest and recovery. I am motivated to save my energy for an upcoming race or hard effort. I have an end goal. Extended periods of rest are a bit more difficult for me.

I like to take an off-season from competitions. I need the mental reset. Generally my off-season is October until my first race of the season in May, which leaves me with no real goals until the following spring. Of course I’m running during that time, but my intention is to reduce volume and intensity; I do easy running mixing in skiing and strength work. This time is important for me mentally and physically, so I feel rejuvenated when it’s time to train hard again.

img_2063

Logically I can talk my way through this, but when it’s actually time to rest, to recover and take a break, I struggle. Maybe you can blame this on my type ‘A’ personality, my goal-oriented way of thinking, my determination and discipline? All of these qualities make me a great runner and hard working; however, they also make it hard for me to chill out!

Recently resting has been a challenge for me. I spent the summer in Europe racing. I was focused, training every day, making sure I was prepared for the challenging races I committed to. So, once it was over and I returned home, I found myself at a loss. I was bored, unhappy and dissatisfied. It wasn’t due to disappointment – I was happy with my season – so what was it, this profound sense of uneasiness? So I went searching for it, trying to run through the boredom and uncertainty. I would stay in Boulder during the week to teach my classes, and then I would take off for 4 days, meeting up with friends or spending time in the mountains alone in hopes of shaking this unease.

img_1731

But I didn’t find it. I only ran into tears, fatigue and more dissatisfaction. I wasn’t giving myself permission to enjoy the down time. I was terrified of where my mind would go, what I would do with my time, of feeling unproductive.

Finally, after too many runs spent crying and wondering why I was still pushing, I realized rest was really what I needed. In fact, after a few days, I got pretty good at it. I just needed permission to rest, and some time to figure out the transition; to establish a new routine.

img_2579img_1550

I’m learning these periods of relaxing and allowing myself to move at a slower pace are a treat. I come back stronger, more motivated and eager. It’s not always easy. There are definitely days where I have to be more patient and not be so hard on myself, but those days are getting easier. I’m letting myself rest into greatness.

img_1798

Check out more articles at Trail Sisters, and thanks to The North Face for their continued support.

Why live a life that’s perceived as mad?

Why live a life that’s perceived as mad?
It’s 3am. I’m surrounded by darkness and a crisp breeze. Goosebumps line my skin, I feel groggy, unmotivated and tired. I lace up my running shoes, as I try to silence the voices in my head: “You’re going running again today? Why so far? Why so long? Why?” . . . . I stare into the darkness, turn on my headlamp, start my watch and go.

 

I was living a life perceived as mad. My family didn’t understand, most of my friends thought I was crazy, sometimes I didn’t even understand why I running. I didn’t understand until I was out there, moving; when I was feeling the mountain air, listening to my footsteps, breathing and pushing my body forward, it all made sense. All questioning dissipated, it didn’t matter what they thought, what anyone thought, I was in my element, my own world. A runner.

 

I haven’t always been a runner, let alone an endurance mountain runner. I was on track to a life defined solely by my job, the amount of money I made, the car I drove and the house I lived in. Not a life guided by my passions, providing freedom to dream and pursue goals other than those associated with a job. This transition, to be a mountain runner, an ultrarunner, to a life focused on the outdoors, has been met with skepticism. Most people didn’t understand what I was doing. Why was I running? What was I running from? What was this ‘obsession,’ this gratuitous hobby?

At first I didn’t know. It’s unexplainable and complex; this desire to run extreme distances through technical terrain, over high-mountain passes through unexplored territory. Is it mad? Some days I think it is. When I’m suffering and battling through the pain, the desire to stop, the raw state of my body exposed to the relentless mountain. Is this life mad? No. In fact, it’s the opposite. In these raw moments I find strength. I find the power within myself to continue and face any challenge that comes my way. It’s a feeling, a place where my mind is clear and I am connected with the world, my heart, and my thoughts. It is the place where I feel the most at home in my own skin, where I can challenge myself, learn, grow and become stronger. It’s a deeply personal form of self-exploration, yet it transcends into every aspect of my life, making me better. It’s powerful, rewarding and beautiful. This madness, is not really madness at all, but a steadfast desire, guiding my heart, mind and soul to a greater purpose and belonging.

 

#QuestionMadness

 

Balance

Strictly speaking, balance is defined as the ability to remain upright and steady due to an even distribution of weight. This is definitely applicable for most trail runners – although falling is inevitable at times. However, I’d like to talk about a different kind of balance, one dealing with the stability of one’s mind and state of being. I’m constantly striving for balance. Maybe you laugh, scoff even, that an ultra runner knows the meaning of the word. Balance? Indeed, I am familiar with the term, and I strive for balance in my daily life.

sun

 

First, I start with running. It’s a huge part of my life, and my favorite way of enjoying nature. However, I don’t want to overdo it. This is to prevent over-training, but even more importantly, to prevent burn out or lack of motivation in my running/racing. I balance my training: mileage, hours and vertical gain.

Now, it’s not always easy to maintain this balance. Heard of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out)? What about YOLO (You Only Live Once)? I fall victim to these ailments, especially when I’m traveling or exploring a new area. All I want to do is get out and run for hours and hours up every mountain I see! Of course, I will get after it, but I’m constantly monitoring how I feel. I allow myself the freedom to slow down, skip a workout, take an extra rest day, or go longer that day if I’m feeling good. I am dedicated to my training plan, but want to maintain a playfulness and happiness with running. This balance keeps me hungry for more.

madeira

 

I can’t run all the time, and even if I could, I don’t want to. Another important aspect to maintain a balanced mind is work. This is something us runners don’t talk about a lot. We assume that if someone is a sponsored runner, that’s all they do. Wrong. In fact, the majority of ‘professional’ trail runners have a day job too, a family and other interests that they are balancing. For me, it’s science.

science

 

I’ve been a scientist since before I could walk. I’m pretty sure my first words were ‘miller moth,’ you know, those moths that come around in hoards once a year and get stuck in your house? Yep. I wanted to be an entomologist for as longa as I can remember, dressing up as an entomologist on career day in kindergarten, or for every Halloween.

bugs

This love of science and curiosity in the natural world motivated me to earn an undergraduate degree in Organic Chemistry and a Masters degree in neuroscience. I worked or volunteered in labs starting in middle school.

Currently, I’m teaching chemistry, physics, anatomy and physiology at a small college outside of Boulder, CO. It’s the perfect way to motivate the next generation of scientists. Plus, it’s challenging to teach the material well.

wy

Science, teaching and running are major parts of my life, without each piece I am not whole. I’m a better teacher if I prioritize running before class. I have more energy and more focus. Then, when it’s time to run, I make it count no matter what the training is that day (even rest days). Balance is more of a way of living, rather than an achievement. It allows me the freedom for change, constantly adjusting my life as my interests evolve. I also coach runners, I ski, and rock climb. I do yoga, cycle, read, cook and travel. Now, of course, I can’t balance those daily, but I can incorporate them in my lifestyle as a whole. Each adding a unique value to my life, while contributing to entirety of me.

 

Check out more pots on Trails Sisters

 

Past the Limit

Ultra running is a niche sport, an extreme one at that. It can take many forms as far as terrain, but the definition is simple: covering a distance more than a marathon. Covering that distance in one piece however, is not so simple.

race_

I first discovered ultra running in the form of mountain running. This quickly turned into a love for an even more extreme form of mountain running known as skyrunning. Here, courses take you from the sea to the sky, in the most direct path imaginable. This year I’ve been lucky enough to compete in La palama (Transvulcania 75km), Madeira (Madeira ultra sky 50km), the Dolomites (Cortina Trail 50km), and the Pyrenees (Buff Epic 110km). I find motivation and challenge in skyrunning, due to the demanding technicality and steep grades. However, my most recent race, the Buff Epic, at the skyrunning world championships in Valle de Boí, forced me to places I had never been before.

13731450_778171207298_3328694720331625680_n

I’m not going into the details of a race report, but for background, this race was 110km with 8000m of positive gain (about 69 miles and 26,500ft). Extreme.

 

I knew this race would challenge me, maybe even break me, but never did I expect the day I had.

start

I started comfortable, anticipating all the climbs, letting the steepness dictate my pace. I felt comfortable, calm to be running. Within the first 20k I had already managed to go off course for a few minutes, to fall on some slippery rocks, but even that couldn’t get my spirits down. I knew I was going to be out there all day, mentally I was ready to be patient.

Then, all of a sudden it hit me. Nausea. I was being proactive about my nutrition, but suddenly, around the 25km mark, even the smell of food made my stomach turn. I would vomit when I tried to eat anything!

I thought things would turn around if I stuck to liquid calories and salt to get back in some electrolytes, but things just got progressively worse. Sipping coca cola soon lead to vomiting and by the 50km mark I was stuck to drinking a salt solution provided by the aid station, with very little caloric value. I was worried and I wanted to quit.

I had an amazing support crew who were meeting me around all sections of the course (which were really hard to get to), so perhaps that was a source of motivation. But, for me, running is so personal. I won’t simple do a race or a run because someone tells me to, I must be convicted to do it myself. So I kept going.

race

This time, every uphill, or slightly steep pitch I was dry heaving. Pushing my body past a certain pace caused me to double over with nausea. I was 67km in.

My mind was spiraling. I worried about my place. How I was competing – I wasn’t competing. I wondered what people would think about my performance, it was the world championships, I wondered if I was a horrible runner now. I thought about quitting simply because I wasn’t in a podium position like I imagined I would be. Right then, I stopped on the trail, and told myself out-loud: ‘That’s a horrible reason to quit Hill, and it’s not why you run.”

 

So I kept moving forward. Around 75km now.

 

I wanted to quit! Why wasn’t I quitting?? Should I quit? Am I causing myself damage? How am I able to walk up this mountain with no food in me??

 

I carried these questions with me into the last major aid station at 81.5km, convinced this was the time to call it quits. I had run 50 miles – that was good enough. Plus, I didn’t want to run in the dark. I was ready to quit, like I had told myself around the 30km mark.

 

My crew had everything prepared. My headlamp, water, more water – water was the only thing I could stomach now. I looked at their faces to confirm my defeat, but they told me they’d see me at the finish. I didn’t believe I’d make it. But I got up, making my way towards the door, hesitant. I wanted to quit, to end the suffering, but I was still moving toward the door. I left in a slow trudging jog.

night

Where was the hope, the perseverance, and this determination within me? Why were my feet still moving me forward? How? Why won’t my stomach stop hurting? How in the world am I still dry heaving? Why am I not quitting?? I still want to quit.

 

These words played like a broken record within my head. Repeating, circling, questioning, begging myself to quit. I really had no idea how I was still moving or if there was anything to be proud of with my performance. I was absolutely defeated. Yet, still moving. How were these two things possible?

 

The last few hours of my race were all a blur. The dull ache of my stomach and my circling questions made time irrelevant. I came to when I say the 1km mark on the side of the trail. I had made it to the finish, but not in a triumphant manner, or with any extra surge of energy. I was relieved and confused crossing the finish line. Why and how did I keep going? How did I make it hear.

 

Over the next few days, I kept reliving my experience and I still can’t explain what transpired that day. I’ve always said I run for the challenge, and the strength it gives me as a person. That day I felt the weakest and most challenged in a race or run. Extraordinarily, I still had something more. Nothing tangible or explicable, but I had something deeper that kept me moving forward, something that wouldn’t let me give up or give in to the pain, the challenge and doubt.

happy

I wouldn’t have discovered this silent strength, this powerful force within me, unless I was pushed past my limit. I would have never known I possessed this immeasurable strength if I had not kept going that day. This is my silver lining, and the true reason why I run. There is strength in the struggle and grace in the challenge. All I must do, is simply run.

 

 

Check out more articles at Trail Sisters

 

Thank you to The North FaceSky RunnerUltimate DirectionSkratch LabsSwiftwick Socks and Real Athlete Diets (RAD) for their continued support.

From the Sea to the Sky

Skyrunning has quickly become my favorite form of trail running. The rules are simple: start from the sea and run to the sky and repeat. This form of racing is popular in Europe and is growing popularity in the US and around the world.

Besides the views, I love this race style for its simplicity. Courses are encouraged to find the most direct (and steepest) climbs, exposed ridge-lines and most direct descents, usually technical. The challenge is something I love.

Transvulcania

I’m competing the the Skyrunner® world series this year, in races all around Europe. The first race kicked off with Transvulcania, an epic 75km race across a volcano! This race is one i’ve wanted to compete in ever since I started ultra running. Not only does it bring the world’s best ultra runners, but the trails are stunning and unrelenting. 13179426_765219168288_6401162083133656090_nskyrunning

photo credit: Meghan M. Hicks

This year at Transvulcania, the women’s filed was stacked. I was nervous to compete, but excited to explore new trails. Getting around on La Palma is quite difficult, so the course is actually the most efficient way to see the entire island.

happy

photo credit: Jordi Saragossa

The variety of terrain on La Palma is incredible, including lush forests, ferns, pine trees, sand, ridge lines and volcanic terrain. But the best part of this race, for me, was literally running into the sky. La Palma is situated such that thick layer of fog roll in constantly and just sit at around 5,000ft. The result is an inversion. We ran through this dense mist to the ridge-lines above. All I could see for miles and miles were ridges, rock and sky. This is sky running at its finest.

The course at Transvulcania is quite runnable and pretty fast. It’s famous for its unrelenting 8,000ft descent off the high point of Roque De Los Muchachos, about 51k into the race. The descent is technical and once you reach the cities by the harbor of Tazacorte there’s a fair amount of pavement to fully annihilate your quads. I was severally undertrained for this downhill. I couldn’t practice this amount of descent, nor steep grade on my Colorado trails due to snow. I was quite surprised when I moved into 5th position on this descent and finished the race with a lot of energy remaining. I left a lot out there, so i’m encouraged to see how fast I can run next year. Ian Corless does a great write up of how the race played out. Stellar performance from the winner, Ida Nilsson.

ladies

 

Madeira 55km

The second race in the Skyrunner® World Series was the Madeira 55km in Madeira, Portugal. This island, although quite near to La Palma, is completely different. Even though it’s volcanic, it lacks an arid environment and is entirely green, lush, humid and wet. It’s a perfect location for a sky race, since the island is filled with mountains and ridge-lines. Plus the organizers weren’t afraid to make some new trials especially for the race; adding in more distance, vertical and technicality. The competition was top notch again.

I have to say this was on of the hardest races I’ve done yet. It’s unrelenting. Climbing over 5000ft in the first 8k of the race was just the warm up. The race ended up with about 13,000ft of elevation gain over the 34 miles (55km) it covered. Even with those extreme stats, there was a fair amount of flat running as well. The technicality was top notch too. Good thing I got in my sight seeing before the race started.

Although I tried to put myself in a good position in the beginning of the race, I wasn’t feeling that strong so I held back. Thankfully, I was able to catch up in the back half of the race and I caught Anna Frost on last climb of the course (which was a vertical kilometer – super steep, on tired legs). This was after we had run through a river for 1/2 mile 🙂

river

Overall I was very happy with my patience and overall race. However, what I remember most from these tough races is the incredible terrain, the challenge and how much I enjoyed the journey. Another aspect I was impressed with was the organization of this race. They had everything dialed and I can’t wait to go back to Madeira to explore and compete again.

 

Thanks to my sponsors, without whom this would not be possible: @thenorthface, @skratchlabs, @ultimatedirectionusa, @swiftwicksocks, @skyrunner

Team Tassy: A Hillygoat in Haiti

When The North Face approached me with an expedition idea in Haiti, I jumped at the opportunity. They are partnering with Team Tassy, an incredible organization changing lives in the Haitian community.

tassy-running-young-girl(photo by Taylor Rees, Outside Magazine)

In 2010, a catastrophic earthquake killed almost 300,000 Haitians and left about 1.5 million people homeless. Ian Rosenberger was anxious to help, but quickly realized the need to work together to rebuild communities and develop resources, including healthcare, education, and employment. This was the beginning of Team Tassy. They put together a fundraising run, and not just any run, but an outrageous 230 mile run, across the entire island. You can read more about the full story in this article by Outside Magazine – Runners: You’ve Never Seen Haiti Like This

Despite being incredibly inspired to run with Team Tassy, I was scared. I knew it would be a challenge for me. The route is epic, a 230 mile run from Cap Haitian (the northern point of Haiti) all the way south, and along the coast, ending in Jacmel. Distance wise, this will be the farthest I have ever run. The terrain is also different, much flatter than I am used to; my specialty being mountainous terrain. Climate is another challenge; the humidity and heat in Haiti are the antithesis of the conditions in Colorado in late February (Boulder is still thawing from the 18 inches of snow). Additionally, I’d have to worry about clean water and mosquitos, carriers of Malaria and Typhoid.

FullSizeRender (9)     FullSizeRender (8)

But, despite these issues, the opportunity is one I can not pass up due to fear or doubt. I know it will be hard, I know I will suffer, and therein lies the beauty.

12628053_1672239939717778_63655178_n

I’m excited to start this journey with fellow North Face teammate Dean Karnazes, and Team Tassy. Together we hope to prove that Haiti is not a place to be afraid of, and with our continued effort we can end global poverty by funding access to medical care and education.

The run starts February 20-27. We will be sharing our journey along the way, so follow along on my facebook twitter and instagram as we #RunAcrossHaiti! Also, check out some other videos to learn more about the cause, and be sure to follow Team Tassy on their instagramfacebook and twitter.